The reunion of a beloved, broken-up band can be a shady enterprise - at least from an artistic point of view, the stated reasons for such a reunion often arbitrary and often little more than a thin veil to prettify or otherwise conceal a lucrative business proposition. That's not to say that all reunions are bad, or for the wrong reasons, or that there even are wrong reasons, or that reunions done for those wrong reasons ("for the money") are necessarily bad anyway. Not if the old music's still good, and the new music, if any, justifies the fans' attention with a purposefulness and a willingness to see beyond any previously established legacy, to celebrate that legacy, but also maybe, in some way, to expand upon it.
In the case of the lately reunited Crowded House, one of the three or four greatest and best loved bands to come out of the mid-80s alternative pop scene, it seems that the very heart, soul, purpose, and inspiration behind the reunion is wrapped up in the sudden, tragic and horrifying impossibility of actually fully reuniting: in 2005, the band's founding drummer, the beloved clown of their earliest videos, who would later go on to a recurring role on the children's TV series The Wiggles, Paul Hester killed himself in a city park near his home in Melbourne, Australia. The band's hauntingly titled reunion album Time On Earth bears an eerie cover illustration depicting a mythical blue serpent having plucked a helpless man from a tree amidst a cubic, vague cityscape (the work of bassist Mark Seymour, who has traditionally done the artwork for all of the band's records); and the sleeve notes bear a dedication to Paul Hester. More importantly, those images and that dedication are evident in the songs themselves which all deal, on some level, directly or indirectly, with the idea of life and living in the immediate shadow of such a sudden, inexplicable, and difficult loss:
You suspected all along
Everything he told you was wrong
And you can see it if you want
But nobody wants to
Greif has always been an integral part of lead singer Neil Finn's songwriting, and a crucial part of the Crowded House sound. His 2004 project with brother Tim entitled Everyone Is Here was largely inspired by the death of his mother; and on Crowded House's 1986 self-titled debut, there's a song called "Hole in the River", which deals with the suicide of Finn's aunt. It's a song that's alternately haunting and maddening, with verses full of ghostly echoes which finally give way to an endless horror movie funhouse of sonic mayhem. That weird insanity, which would border on the comic if it weren't so creepy or sad, is evident on a current song called "She Called Up", a typically catchy, singalong, soul-pop number on an electric piano riff and giddy little synthesizer fills, from which emerge choruses of demon-eyed voices singing la-la-la's that intermittently threaten to hijack the groove and ultimately, despite Finn's best efforts, do.
In fact, given the circumstances, given the somewhat self-reproachful lyrics of songs like the opening "Nobody Wants To" or the strangely uplifting cosmic contemplations on living and dying which infuse the closing "People Are Like Suns" - and they come and they go in the fullness of time - much of this new record is pretty upbeat. "Don't Stop Now", in which Finn pleads for something to write about, something to cry about, has a driving rock beat perfect for cruising the empty streets of a sleepy downtown at midnight - a chorus full of the most insistent, necessarily insatiable longing. "Even a Child" (co-written with the Smiths' Johnny Marr, one of the record's many special guests including a whole slew of various Finns - though no Tim) is a summery folk rock jangle; while "Heaven That I'm Making" is a steamy funk stagger in 6/4 time, all dressed up in wah-wah and sitar, a light-headed, almost hallucinatory 21st Century urban spiritual.
If the pacing of the album tends to be a little draggy in the latter half, it's also where the album's darkest heart lies with songs like "A Sigh", as substantial and fleeting as a foggy evening glow; or "You Are the One To Make Me Cry", a dry-voiced recitation over electric piano and shifting, mournful strings, where Finn's voice sounds tired with pain and skirts the edge of a damaged falsetto on the chorus. The bewilderingly atmospheric jazz of "Transit Lounge" is all electronic monitors, modern seating and a strangely festive sort of public isolation, public address announcements in foreign languages and seductively impersonal voices, tropical voices from Brasil '66 records flirtily chirping about coconut groves, over grooves stolen from Steely Dan, circa 1974.
But the record dives its deepest depths on the nearly six-minute "Silent House" (a collaboration with the Dixie Chicks), which couches its sacred vows to never forget when your mind was still clear, all the laughter and light that filled up this silent house - probably the record's most direct appeal in memory of Paul Hester - in a heavy, revolving, ever escalating cycle of chord change and melody:
Everything that you made my hand
Everything that you learned by heart
Every name that you can't recall
I will carry it on
and let you forget...
Which is about as close as one might get to a concise mission statement for this reunion. This is Neil Finn and Mark Seymour (and Mark Hart, and Matt Sherrod, and gang of relatively high profile guests) saying good-bye to an old friend, by doing something they really can't do without him - that is, being the band they were when they recorded songs like "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Into Temptation". Something so strong could carry us away. It's a purposeful music. It mourns. It confesses. And like the man the music celebrates, it's also beautiful and driven and playful, optimistic and thoughtful, full of whimsy, and, finally, touched by darkness. In that sense, it's really a little bit like any other Crowded House record. And a little bit not.
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BECAUSE YOU NEED TO KNOW:
"Time on Earth" by Crowded House
Produced by Ethan Johns
SONGS: Nobody Wants To - Don't Stop Now - She Called Up - Say That Again - Pour le Monde - Even a Child - Heaven That I'm Making - A Sigh - Silent House - English Trees - Walked Her Way Down - Transit Lounge - You Are The One To Make Me Cry - People Are Like Suns